Friday, March 24, 2006


David Lean, usually known for his epics, directed this intimate little gem of romantic frustration played out between two ordinary middle-class people in England during WWII. Celia Johnson is a plain-looking suburban wife and mother who spends her Thursdays taking the train into town to do shopping and lunching. One day, while waiting for the train home, she has a chance encounter with a doctor, also plain-looking and married (Trevor Howard), who helps get an irritating speck of dirt out of her eye. She thinks nothing of it until, over the next few weeks, they run into each other again and are soon dining and going to movies together, and an attraction develops. Little actually happens between them, though both feel guilty as they begin planning their meetings each week. Eventually, they decide to stay in town one night to consummate their affair at the apartment of a friend of Howard's, but the friend arrives home before they've had a chance to do anything more than look guilty, and she runs away. At their next meeting, he tells her that he's leaving for a job in South Africa and they spend one final, torturous day together, their final moments at the train station spoiled by a gossipy friend of Johnson's. In a surprisingly intense moment, he touches her on the shoulder and leaves forever. She rushes out to the train tracks and briefly contemplates suicide, but in the end returns to her husband, who remains unaware of her passionate encounter.

The story is the stuff of countless romance novels, but the acting, music, and camerawork make it rise above its origins. Johnson and Howard are both perfect as ordinary people swept up in an unexpected passion that has the potential to change their routine lives forever. The entire film is told from Johnson's point of view (we never see Howard's home or work life) as a flashback while she's sitting with her husband on the night when Howard has left for good. In fact, the opening scene of their departure at the train station, which makes little sense to us, is replayed in its entirety at the end when we realize all the ramifications of each line of dialogue and each gesture. There is some critical debate as to how physical their relationship gets--we see them kiss at least once, and I assumed that they had sex during an afternoon ride in the country, but I might be bringing a more contemporary attitude to this than I should. At any rate, it is a heartbreaking and seemingly realistic look at two people trapped in a romantic fantasy which probably could not have had any happy ending at all. The film is carried by Johnson and Howard, though there are two important secondary characters, a barmaid at the train station (Joyce Carey) and the station guard (Stanley Holloway), who we see carry on a more casual flirtation. Nice use of trains, location shooting, spare sets, and the music of Rachmaninoff--being a child of the 70's, I was yanked out the film briefly when the melody that Eric Carmen used as the basis for his song "All By Myself" came roaring up on the soundtrack. [TCM]

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